The long con

The long con

The success of the Conservatives in the UK’s general election could be seen as a triumph of spin, or its last dying thrash. The future will depend on how well the progressive parties understand their failure, and how a more compelling and realistic narrative of the last forty years could better serve them.

The UK media will be awash for the next few days with political post-mortems, following the surprise election of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Not least because these blogs have a substantial US readership I don’t want to go too far along the same road, but I do want to reflect on some of the implications for political conduct generally in a representative democracy, and specifically what all this might mean for spin culture and its relation to political narratives.

Ignorance as virtue

The English are not a particularly well-educated nation. We’re no worse than the Americans perhaps, but we have to live here with a cultural suspicion of knowledge and learning, as well as a mainstream belief that politics is really for nerds and wonks, and that decent ordinary people for the most part keep away from it. I’m not suggesting that other countries are somehow more intelligent than the English, just that there’s a strong strain in English culture that sees political ignorance as a virtue rather than a problem.

The stereotype is benignly embodied in Clive Candy, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: decent, honourable, likeable and dim, he would have seen voting Tory not so much as a political act as simply what you do. This as I say is the benign view, though Powell and Pressburger’s immediate point was to suggest that such amiable buffoonery was not up to the horror of the Nazi threat.

It’s not like this in most other European countries: politicians might be seen as easily corrupt and venal everywhere, but most Europeans are not so detached from or ignorant about political issues as the English (I’m carefully not writing “British” because it’s become all too clear that the Scots are in a different position).

Our political system both reflects and reinforces this culture. “First past the post” developed in quite different conditions from where we find ourselves now and has proved itself repeatedly dysfunctional (if you believe that the purpose of democracy is to make governments accountable to public opinion). Both Labour and Tory governments have enjoyed large majorities on the back of minority shares of the vote. Minority views are routinely under-represented or excluded completely. Apologists for FPP argue strangely that it produces strong government, as if strong government could only occur by marginalising all but an unrepresentative single party’s voice, as if there would always be a problem if you demanded that politicians sought areas of agreement in the national interest.

It’s a reflection of Britain’s anti-political culture that a referendum four years ago on whether we should move to a fairer electoral system was met with substantial voter indifference. The British it seemed didn’t care to think too much about such technicalities: that’s one for the political wonks. Labour’s self-interested ambivalence about reform didn’t help.

The Scottish independence referendum marked a sea change in political activism, a change that has spilt out into this election. But the change is a Scottish rather than English phenomenon (the rise and falter of UKIP’s regressive nationalism is not comparable) and in any case beyond my scope here.

Tribalism and soundbites

For most of the last century Britain operated a two party system governed largely by tribal allegiances, again reflecting a political culture where people didn’t want to think too hard about the choices in front of them. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for spin, for the reduction of serious questions to trivial soundbites and slogans, fed by a populist (if patronising) media heavily entrenched on the Right. There are parallels with the US in all this, though I’ll leave it to others with more specific knowledge to explore them.

This was the political culture that the Blair project, drawing inspiration from Bill Clinton, sought to exploit by outplaying the hostile media at their own game. It was a project that sought to grab the parts of a right wing agenda that might be confusingly reassuring to its media, while sneaking social democratic reform beneath the radar. In electoral terms it was clearly successful, but it had two dire consequences. The first was that it drew those Labour administrations into such close continuity with their Conservative predecessors that they hardly scratched the surface of the structural reform we really needed (the upshot was Britain’s exposure to the fallout from the catastrophic failure of neoliberal market policies in the crash of 2008, an abject failure still barely acknowledged in British political narratives). The second was that winning elections became a game of spin, soundbites and story manipulation, lessons quickly understood by that ex-PR man and Blair admirer David Cameron.

Truth be told

It’s axiomatic both in political life, and in wider professional communication circles, that every political party needs to find its narrative. It’s a lesson that to some extent politicians have learned from businesses, even if businesses themselves don’t face the same pressure to simplify that has fallen on politicians. Also in the commercial world the growth of the internet, of uncontrollable scrutiny in social media and alternative commentary has created a real pressure on business narratives to ground themselves in truth rather than wishful thinking and the platitudes of spin. It’s an idea businesses are still exploring, however hard it is for them to let go of old habits.

This change is overdue in politics. The English are not just often ignorant about politics. They are also generally cynical, with some justice feeling that life in the Westminster village is completely detached from their own. That cynicism is fuelled by politicians’ own apparent readiness to treat the idea of truth as a matter of interpretation.

Politicians have long been blamed for making promises they don’t keep, and then being evasive when challenged. But this election campaign hit new lows in the way the Tories peddled downright lies about Labour, and Labour’s failure to counter the biggest lie of all is almost certainly the reason why they failed to regain the support of middle England.

Tony Blair and his supporters are already saying that Labour’s failure lay in their abandonment of the centre ground, and their lurch to the left. This is dangerous claptrap, partly because their centrist position clearly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats at all, partly because Miliband’s flagship populist policies (raising the minimum wage, clamping down on energy prices, ending the non-dom tax anomaly) were only “red” in the hysterical doublespeak of right wing media.

For their part it has to be said that the Tory campaign was a shambles, pitching around for any idea that might lift their apparently frozen approval rating, even throwing in an unfunded pledge to protect NHS spending which undermined whatever claims they were making for fiscal rectitude (and with it what little they have in the way of a positive narrative for their programme).

But none of this mattered because they were able to draw on a single, overarching idea, historically and apparently still currently fatal to Labour.

It’s the economy, stupid.

And it’s also the biggest lie in post war British politics, but there you go. It’s quite true that Labour is always likely to favour more state involvement in national life than the Tories, and so are ideologically inclined to favour higher public spending than any party on the Right, but the consequent and pervasive notion that every time Labour takes power the Tories have to clean up their mess is the mirror opposite of the truth. In the 1960s Roy Jenkins and in the 1970s Denis Healey were far more competent chancellors than their Tory predecessors, though both took the rap for the hard decisions they had to make to rectify the mistakes of those predecessors. To be fair in the 90s it was the Tory Kenneth Clarke who began to pick up the pieces from the failures of his party colleagues Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, a job continued by Gordon Brown.

The return to form

The critical change for Labour in the Blair years was that they seemed to upend this core (and false) narrative about economic competence. In this they were probably lucky: Britain’s exit from the EU exchange rate mechanism under Norman Lamont in 1992 had taken on a totemic importance. I doubt many people understood its real causes or what it meant, but it offered a ready peg on which to hang an accusation of Tory economic incompetence, and until the crash of 2008 that accusation stuck.

Until the crash the Tories’ ideas about the economy had barely deviated from Gordon Brown’s. It’s hard for politicians to argue with what looked like a successful formula. If pushed (though no one has even tried to do that) I don’t suppose David Cameron or George Osborne would really argue that Brown’s government had caused the banking crisis. What they would say is that his policies had weakened the UK’s ability to withstand such a shock. Never mind that before the crash the Tories themselves had put forward no ideas or policies that would have made any difference, or the inconvenient truth that between the crash and the 2010 election Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had already achieved the first movement towards a recovery, a movement quickly squashed by the Coalition’s own incompetent economic management.

We were back with the familiar story. In fact, the Coalition leaders were quite happy to imply that the crash had been caused by Labour incompetence, by Gordon Brown’s reckless spending, and the public seemed to revert to the default view of Labour as wreckers of the British economy, even if (as usual) the policies then being pursued by the Tory led coalition have demonstrably hampered recovery.

Astonishingly the Labour front bench seemed unwilling to counter. Perhaps they lacked faith in themselves. Perhaps they believed the standard PR idea that to engage with such a false argument would only give it credence. It was a catastrophic misjudgement, giving the Coalition ample opportunity to turn a lie into received wisdom. It seems then with hindsight, that Labour lost the 2015 election somewhere around 2011.

Simple, clear, and wrong

There’s a miserable paradox at work here. Electoral appeal really is about the economy (stupid), but the English don’t have a political culture in which economic issues can be intelligently or adequately discussed. By swinging to the Tories last week did the English prove that on the whole they are as selfish and vicious as the ideology of the party they have just elected? I doubt they thought about it that deeply, being led (and inevitably misled) by an instinctive reaching for managerial reassurance.

Changing that core narrative once more is going to be tough. Blair and Brown were able to capitalise on the memory of Black Wednesday and the ERM exit. Such a totemic failure may well crop up again in the next five years, or it may not, and in its absence progressive parties are going need to find a better and more enduring way than in the past of showing that their ideas offer a more reliable route to sustainable prosperity.

Doing this probably means moving beyond distinctive party political narratives. Arguably it’s about putting over and embedding a more truthful narrative about what’s happened in the UK and beyond in the last forty years. It’s a narrative in which inequality is not seen as an inevitable and necessary by-product of sensible political behaviour, but as an economic problem in itself, a problem that threatens both social cohesion and commercial productivity, a sign that capital itself is no longer supporting productivity and competitiveness.

Does it matter that this narrative is strictly truthful? After all, respect for veracity has hardly held the Tories back. Having truth on your side is clearly not enough, but then it seems that putting a progressive case against the grain of England’s embedded political culture is going to need all the help it can get.

Ironically I think Miliband’s camp was well aware of the need to push this different narrative, but never found the means or created the space to articulate it in terms that the politically indifferent English would understand and accept. It’s apparent too that a leader needs more than decency and integrity (qualities Miliband had in spades) to put such a narrative across. It needs charisma too. Such charisma was Bill Clinton’s special gift. Obama is probably the better orator, but he’s never been as liked, and therefore trusted. Blair too had some of the same gift, though his political vision was so narrow that it never served anything but his desire to win.

Old ideas die slowly. The fact that the English have clambered onto what they mistakenly see as safe ground doesn’t mean they will be able to stay there. An old lie has served David Cameron well, but the next five years are going to be turbulent to say the least. The big electoral issue in five years’ time will still be the economy, but at this stage it’s impossible to say how much that issue will have been reshaped or indeed further distorted by the resurgent nationalist forces witlessly unleashed by the Tories in their campaign. But just as businesses are having to learn to deal with reality in how they see and speak of themselves, so too will the pressure of political reality (and a more grounded narrative about the state we’re in) assert itself. The question for progressive parties is whether they want to sit around waiting for that to happen, in the meantime indulging themselves with old and irrelevant factional battles, or whether they work to take hold of that real narrative, make it their own, and somehow lead the English to understand it’s their story too.

Like decent human beings

Like decent human beings

I was in France recently, for work mostly rather than pleasure. I’ve had to speak more French in these few days than I’ve done for decades, and it’s been gratifying to feel that once surrounded by the everyday words and grammar, and forced to use it, my decayed knowledge of the language should revive itself.

All the same I still have to tune in, to focus hard on what’s being said, and in this respect, for much of the time, this week has offered some of the pleasure that any trip to a foreign country presents, the relaxation of being away from an environment where you’re sensitive to every social or culturally-inflected nuance.

This general calm envelops you, helping you switch off and enjoy yourself. It’s a calm that can also hold off the intrusions of the commercial world, which in reality are as omnipresent in France as anywhere else. I can read French well enough and know what all the signs and ads mean, but it seems so much easier to screen them out, knowing they are for the most part aimed at homegrown consumers.

Then again in France there are still many more small independent enterprises (or so it seems), and a good deal less uniformity in the town centres. The big chains are still there of course, but their impact is leavened by more individual shop fronts. (It’s a different story on the outskirts of town where the French were the European pioneers of US style mega-retail sites.)

Consistency v uniformity

I’d guess the big retail chains would argue that this obliterative uniformity in town centres is important to their brand recognition, or indeed that some people find comfort in it: you know what you’re going to get when you go into Starbucks or Costa. But I wonder (as ever) whether they’re confusing uniformity with consistency, and whether there’s now an opportunity for a more nuanced relationship between businesses and their customers.

Just to take a small example, I use Costa coffee shops quite a lot, because the coffee is reasonable, the seats comfortable, and I know I can pick up the wifi. These are all good consistencies. The uniformity of the decor is a little dispiriting, though I understand why it might be cheaper for the business. But why force the staff to wear uniforms? Why not just give them aprons (branded if necessary) and otherwise let them retain their individuality? After all these are social places, and in my local branch I’m on first name terms with many of them. That individuality can easily co-exist with the consistency you do want to preserve. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to draw everything into the machine.

Then again it may be time for a much more profound redefinition of the place of business in society.

Rethinking corporate purpose

In the last five years or so management thinking has been pushing the importance of corporate purpose, of what business is for. The idea probably has its roots in the older notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR), but what’s most striking about it is how it sits at odds with what has become the ascendant dogma of shareholder capitalism, that the real driving force for business decisions has been the need to make large amounts of money to feed the short term demands of the financial community.

I’m not suggesting it’s wrong for businesses to want to make money. Indeed I think it’s important that they do so. Businesses are always going to be the primary engine for the redistribution of the wealth they create, through the salaries and the taxes they pay. I’d argue that in the last thirty years, and particularly the last ten, they have become dysfunctional in this respect, because the supremacy of the shareholder-led model has been diverting disproportionate amounts of money into the financial community, which is then unable or unwilling to deploy that accumulated capital to create further useful value for society. This in a nutshell is why the current phenomenon of “inequality” is so important and so dangerous.

The idea of “corporate purpose” can’t be treated on the same footing as other management concepts like brand or Total Quality Management, because it demands a circle of assent between business managers and the social or cultural views in which they must operate. It’s not just another tool to engage better employee motivation and raise productivity, though it might well do those things. It’s part of an evolution away from what has proved a destructive business model.

I’m not underestimating the difficulties here. Although there are many business leaders who already recognise that there’s a problem, getting the financial sector to change its expectations and its habits is going to be tough. It can only happen through a combination of primary legislation, fiscal manipulation (to reward long term investment) and a public debate which creates pressure for change. It will be a tough sell because it means those in the financial sector will have to accept smaller (if still rich) rewards, as will senior management. Before objectors start talking about global marketplaces and the demand for “top talent” it also needs to be said that at the moment it’s a rigged market, and that the escalation of reward is higher in the UK even than the US. It’s become a structural problem for our economy, and it has to be addressed.

Getting it right

But there are some immediate rewards for businesses that can get it right. Getting it right means thinking about corporate purpose differently. It’s not about bolting on some kind of overarching social good, to take the place of shareholder primacy; for many businesses it may be impossible to link a social good to its products, and in any case unless that social purpose is real (which means it could never be compromised for the sake of earnings) it’s always going to be vulnerable to accusations that it’s no more than a PR stunt.

But it should be possible (and necessary) for every business to think more coherently and accurately about its place in society, and what this means for its “stakeholder” relationships.

In a sense this isn’t new. It’s what CSR was supposed to be about, and indeed what the notion of “stakeholder” was supposed to push forward. But CSR was treated largely as a function, not a way of being, and that was always likely in an era where the need to meet short-term shareholder demands has been the dominant truth of corporate purpose.

What is new is a shift in consumer views of business, a cynicism and anxiety brought on by the more rapacious version of capitalism that’s come into being. It’s a cynicism that makes all the things businesses want to say about their values and commitments sound hollow. To address this cynicism I’d suggest businesses don’t need to reach for some distinctive “corporate purpose”. They need to start behaving like decent human beings.

And that’s an interesting idea.

Being human

It’s an idea with radical implications for the ways businesses talk to their customers, and to themselves (to their staff). Apart from anything else it means being unafraid of letting the real humanity in your business speak for itself (or actually, themselves). So if as is likely your business is currently exploring the tricky territory of social media, you need to let the people doing it be themselves, let them speak for themselves in their conversations (the clue is in that word “social”). That doesn’t mean they should be discussing their personal politics, but it takes us back to the coffee shop, to the important distinction between consistency and uniformity. If people speak (or write) like corporate robots, slaves to the tone-of-voice fascism of routine brand thinking, the conversation will not go far because in a social context we don’t really like talking to robots. Your representatives need to understand what it is about the business that matters, about its corporate story and its priorities, but they need to be able to tell that story in their own, human words.

It means when it comes to a town centre presence, whether in France or anywhere else, a little more modesty might be called for, because that’s an attractive human trait, and could make people warm to your business rather than seeing it as an unreflective marketing machine. So while you might reasonably want to offer instantly recognisable signage, you might do so in a way that shows greater care for, greater attention to whatever else might be going on around. The local authority in Stratford upon Avon has long imposed this constraint on businesses in its historic centre, and I doubt it’s led to any diminishing of brand recognition.

The idea of being human goes beyond the way businesses speak, or present themselves. It’s about how they think, about their aspirations, about how they expect staff to feel about their work, and how those staff themselves relate what they do at work to the values that govern the rest of their lives (one might say it’s about pulling down the artificial division between the spheres of work and everything else). Given that conceptual, behavioural shift, more effective, engaging communication should follow.

So in this sense it’s not a communications issue at all. It’s about engaging with reality.

We are at an important moment of change. As I write the UK is about to go to the polls in a general election. It’s been one of the most unengaging campaigns I can remember, at a time when the choices that need to be made could hardly matter more.

It’s been unengaging because politicians, ever behind the curve, still believe that what you say doesn’t particularly have to connect to reality, that you can win by spin, by constructing your own reality. In recent years, partly because of the internet, partly because of events, this idea which started in business has begun to unravel. In business, politics, and every other aspect of our lives, we need to reconnect what we want and do with who we really are (as humans). Then we might stand a chance of having other humans help us along the way.